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How America’s Favorite Indian Dish Found Its Place on the Culinary Map

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Hit up any Indian restaurant on a good day and they will have butter chicken or murgh makhani on the menu. It’s the ultimate comfort food, but few chefs that attempt the traditional Indian dish make a spot-on version. Here’s how you can differentiate the good from the imposters: smoky chunks of chicken, a rich (and noticeably tangy) sauce, and lasting flavor. The story of this ubiquitous dish is intertwined with the invention of the immensely popular tandoori chicken, another crowd-pleaser.

Nearly a hundred years ago, in the Gora Bazaar area of Peshawar (in present-day Pakistan, though at the time it was part of India), a young chef, Kundan Lal Gujral, working in a small restaurant, was rather bold to stick marinated chicken skewers into the tandoor (a clay oven used to make bread). It was, surprisingly, a massive hit and the birth of tandoori chicken. Following the 1947 Indian Partition, Gujral came to Delhi, where he founded his own restaurant, Moti Mahal.

Back then, refrigeration was still lacking, and any of his tandoori chicken that didn’t sell went rancid. To troubleshoot this dilemma, Gujral devised a solution: a butter and cream-laden tomato gravy to soften the chicken. He had hit the jackpot. The response was phenomenal as it slowly trickled into North Indian households, birthing its many variations, namely, chicken tikka masala, chicken butter masala, and murgh makhanwala.

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One such iteration of butter chicken landed in Kolkata, nearly a thousand miles southeast of Delhi, thanks to Kwality, an upscale tearoom that expanded their menu to offer Northern Indian and tandoori dishes in the early ‘50s. Pioneering North Indian food in Kolkata, Kwality’s daal makhni, pindi chhole, and fish masala kebabs have loyalists across the globe.

“The soul of a Punjabi household is kaali daal (black creamy lentils) and butter chicken,” said Kwality’s Rajiv Ghai. “We source our masalas from Delhi which is what makes our food so delectable. Some restaurants have come before us, some have come after, but we pride ourselves in our consistency.”

Their family-run establishment dishes out a rustic and hearty butter chicken in comparison to the commercial chicken in orange-colored gravy that is laced with cream. While most dhabas (roadside eateries) across Delhi would nail the recipe in a heartbeat, Kwality brings those flavors down to Kolkata.

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As butter chicken has become a worldwide favorite in its more traditional form, the pick-me-up dish has also been adapted into North American cuisine. It’s the Punjabi chefs around the world who can be trusted to seamlessly integrate authentic butter chicken into North American street fare. Brothers Nakul and Arjun Mahendro from Badmaash, under the tutelage of their father and revered chef Pawan Mahendro, created buzz on the California culinary scene with their fried butter chicken sammich (sandwich) that transcends all cultural boundaries. Wearing their heart on their sleeves, this trio created a restaurant that is a labor of love against all odds of racism, prejudice, and struggle in a new country as an immigrant.

Although Los Angeles diners can find the original butter chicken on the Badmaash menu, the addition of chicken tikka poutine (perhaps an homage to the Mahendro’s Toronto days), a fried butter chicken sammich, and butter chicken samosas makes the classic dish even more accessible to the global audience. Badmaash has designed their menu in a way that elevates Indian cuisine while downplaying the Bollywood stereotype. It’s not just a way to bring high-end Indian food to the California audience; it’s a re-imagination of the American dream.

Even when introducing modern and North American influence into their Indian food, the restaurant maintains a non-westernized Indian ethos. And their butter chicken is a perfect example; though invented at a restaurant, murgh makhani is a rather homely dish, which you can taste when sampling the Mahendro’s butter chicken. That’s precisely what makes butter chicken so successful when made correctly; the honesty and simplicity of the dish. To be fair, there has been no truer representation of India on a plate.


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